GORAV GUPTA has spent his life helping the mentally ill. But when suicidal patients seek help at his psychiatric hospital in Delhi, he turns them away. Mr Gupta says he cannot handle the “legal hassle” that might ensue if they try to end their lives while in his care.

Attempted suicide, as well as “any act towards the commission” of suicide, has for years been a crime in India. But on March 27th the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house, passed a package of mental-health reforms, among them one that decriminalises attempted suicide. The bill declares access to psychiatric care to be a right for all Indians, and promises a huge boost in funding to help provide it.

Policymakers in India have long argued that people driven to attempt suicide need rehabilitation. But under the previous law, they instead faced punishment: a fine and up to a year in prison. Prosecution was rare, but the threat of it to extract bribes from the families of those who attempted suicide was not, says Soumitra Pathare, who helped draft the new legislation. Others point out that the government has previously used laws against attempted suicide to lock up activists who stage hunger strikes.

The next step in mental-health reform is to allocate more money and expand the workforce, says Mr Pathare. Mental health made up just 0.06% of India’s health budget in 2011; the median in countries of comparable development is 1.9%. Despite having a population more than 50 times bigger than Australia’s, India has around the same number of psychiatrists (just 3,500).

Yet the reforms are unlikely to reduce India’s suicide rate, which, adjusting for age, is almost double that of America. Researchers often attribute large numbers of suicides in Asian countries to “impulsive” acts in moments of crisis, rather than diagnosable mental disorders. Limiting access to pesticides, poisons that are close at hand for most rural Indians, may prevent such deaths, as it has in Sri Lanka. Unlike many countries, India has no national suicide-prevention plan. More can be done to break the taboos that prevent the depressed from opening up to friends and doctors.

The big challenge is to improve the lot of India’s young, among whom suicide is the leading cause of death. Suicide rates in Asia tend to shoot up as people enter old age; in India the opposite is true. The suicide rate for women aged 15-29 is more than double that of any other country except Suriname (which has a large Indian population) and Nepal (which shares many cultural similarities). In future they, and other Indians, may find it easier to seek psychological help without fear. But the world they are living in cannot be regulated away.